Writing (Speculative Fiction) While Black

It’s rare that a report full of facts and figures punches you right in the gut, but I just finished reading the #BlackSpecFic report (and accompanying editorials) by Fireside Fiction, and I am feeling all the feels. (Note: If you have no idea which report I’m talking about, read it. Read it now. It’s easy to get caught up in shock about the finding, which are that only 38 of the over 2,000 short stories published in speculative short fiction markets were written by a Black person, but there’s more to it than that and it answers a lot of the typical questions about submission rates and quality and all that. It’s worth the read.)

I should probably wait and try to process all of this before I write a blog post, but that isn’t the 2016 way, right, and I worry that I’ll start smudging the truth out of my words, hiding them underneath the veneer of civility and not wanting people to dislike me, so here goes.

I am a Black writer of speculative short fiction who is new to the field, and I have no idea where exactly I fit in. It seems like a ridiculous thing for me to write, honestly, even though it’s true. I mean, as neo-pro spec-fic writers go, I’m doing pretty well. I had the means and work situation/class privilege to be able to go to the Odyssey Writers Workshop for six weeks last summer (and thus qualify for Codex) and enroll in an low-residency MFA at Stonecoast this year.

I live in New York City, so I get to do things like go to the KGB Bar and meet awesome writers and stare in wonder at Ellen Datlow in hopes that I will mind-control her into publishing me one day. I’m a non-threatening short medium-brown skinned extroverted smiley black woman, and people generally tend to (or at least pretend to) like me. With the help of Con or Bust (which sends people of color to SFF conventions across the country), I’ve gone to cons and met some of the coolest spec-fic writers around, including many amazing writers of color. I’ll be at Midamericon II next month, and I’m sure I’ll have a good time. I should feel cloaked in the warm embrace of the SFF writing community. Right?

My burgeoning speculative fiction writing life should be wonderful, but every time I go to send in a piece of short fiction, I start thinking. I think:

This magazine has an awesome diversity statement, but what does that mean for me? I remember, a few years ago, a report revealed something I probably could have told you, that resumes sent in to companies with “black names” don’t do nearly as well as those sent in with “white names.” I don’t have that issue – the name Erin Roberts tends to have people picturing a red-headed Irish woman, not a dreadlocked black one (though for years, I made sure to have something on my resume to indicate that I was a woman of color, because I got sick of having interviewers thrown off by the reality of who I was, repeating over and over again that they “thought I’d have freckles” and ignoring my qualifications).

These days, though, maybe I have the opposite problem. Magazines want “diverse voices” but sometimes I wonder how they’re looking for them. Some authors are known to be people of color, or can be assumed to be POC from their last or first names, but black people are probably the ethnic group most likely to have a name indistinguishable from the Irish girl people always think I am. So how then, do I raise my hand and say – hey this is a diverse voice! Do I put a PS in my cover letter? Do I just keep my head down? Can people tell my background from the way that I write? Do I want them to?

If this story sells, what if I have somehow done more harm than good? When I was at Odyssey, I told my classmates that my biggest writing fear was to have something I wrote torn apart by one of the amazing writers of color who are always willing to speak truth to power. After all, I consume the same media and live in the same country as many of my white writing peers. How much prejudice have I taken in? How much am I unintentionally broadcasting back out, even as I try to use science fiction and fantasy to reflect what I see as the truth of the world I’m living in? What if this story demeans my culture? What if I am a self-hating anti-black sellout who is somehow giving ammunition to racists just by putting my work out in the universe? What if I just want to write about a dragon in Brooklyn? Does all my work have to mean something more? What does it mean for/about me if it doesn’t?

If this story gets traction (an award, a Year’s Best, etc.), how many people will assume it has nothing to do with my talent? I went to an Ivy League university. It was awesome, and a great reward for me kicking ass and grade-grubbing throughout high school. What was less awesome was the people who looked at me and assumed that my acceptance was because of who I was and not what I’d done. (And no, this isn’t an argument to get rid of affirmative action – the answer to one or two racially challenged assholes is not to let the system become just like them).

And now, just as I am starting to get my reward of publication for all the hard work I’ve put into building my writing craft, there are entire movements that seem to insist that a work of science fiction or fantasy that tackles race or gender, that is written by anyone who has had to personally tackle race or gender, only wins awards or get recognized in any way because the powers that be are giving out cookies to people who don’t look like them to satisfy their liberal guilt. That tells me that even if I believe in my stories, in my talent, there will be some people who won’t. And hey, that happens in the writing business, but there’s a difference between being told “I don’t think you’re a good writer” and being told “I don’t think there’s any way you could really be a good writer and don’t you know that people just say good things to you out of pity?”

I don’t have the answers to any of this. I’ve only sold one story. I’ve only gone to a handful of cons. I’m just trying to make my way. So why did I write this? I’m not really sure.

I guess I just want to say, to the other black science fiction and fantasy writers out there who nobody has ever heard of, who are just like me (or nothing at all like me, ’cause do you), to all the black people trying to make it in this field who will probably never see this blog post, I’m putting it out in the universe. I see you. I see you trying. I see you working. I see you submitting and getting rejected and submitting again. I’ll keep writing and trying to get my name out there and trying to get my voice out there, if you’ll do the same.

Let’s knock on the door until our knuckles are bleeding, until we’re sure they hear us, even if they don’t open the door. Let’s feel our feels and cry our tears and channel our passion into the best damn stories this genre has ever seen.

Let’s keep writing.

5 thoughts on “Writing (Speculative Fiction) While Black”

  1. Thank you for writing this (and for the link to Fireside’s piece). My vote? Give us the P.S., please, because i know i’m not the only submissions reader who values #OwnVoices.

  2. Well said! (Also, that ‘we’re welcoming to diverse voices’ thing! I feel that so hard! Am I supposed to make the effort to out myself in every two-line cover letter? Does ‘is pretty gay’ go with ‘grad of Odyssey 2015’? It is frustrating and useless and I am looking forward to talking to you about giving the Writing the Other Lecture because I am probably the most ‘diverse’ person here (something that makes me and my privilege laugh like a hyena). Which is Kind of the Whole Problem. All the black spec fic writers who are out there, trying so hard, why aren’t they in here? They should be.))

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